In a conversation with a young university student recently, I learned that many students today tend to regard utilitarianism as the best, most optimal way for a society to function. By utilitarianism they mean promoting the greatest happiness of the greatest number of people (a view originated by Jeremy Bentham, 1748-1832). Students wonder if an Objectivist society would say that if someone "stumbles" and "needs help," he would simply be out of luck, and Objectivists would merely say, "Too bad," and move on with their own lives (and that such "poor souls" would inevitably exist but would be ignored in an Objectivist society). Students do not see why it would be "bad" for a society to "adjust" and "refine" capitalism as needed to make it more "friendly" to the greatest number of people, even if this means sometimes sacrificing a few, to some degree (especially those who already have the most personal wealth and prosperity), for the benefit of the many.
The classic Objectivist response is: "If you want to help others in 'need,' you will not be stopped." (This is almost a verbatim quote from Ayn Rand's article, "Collectivized Ethics," reprinted in VOS, Chapter 10, fourth paragraph.) I wonder if others on this website can suggest additional, possibly more effective responses to give to today's young students insofar as they may still be open to rational elaboration.
I have no experience myself in promoting Objectivism for today's university students, but one point that occurs to me is that "society" is not the true "starting point" for defining a proper society. "Social policy" actually begins with morality, not with the existence or non-existence of a "society," and morality rests on deeper philosophical issues in epistemology and metaphysics. Morality involves questions such as: (a) what should I be free to do if I am in "need"? -- (b) Is it morally right for a society to sacrifice some for the benefit of others (even if those being sacrificed allegedly "can afford it")? -- and (c) How can I or anyone else create my own or his own "safety net"? There is also the philosophical and historical fact that a principle of sacrifice at the root of a society dooms the society to ever-increasing expansions of sacrifice into all phases of life, steadily losing sight of what really promotes "the greatest happiness of the greatest number."
Still, Jeremy Bentham himself apparently was highly supportive of individualism, according to the entry on him in The Harper Collins Dictionary of Philosophy, 2nd Edition, by Peter A. Angeles:
Bentham staunchly defended individualism: Each person is the best and final judge of his or her own interests. The individual should never be hindered by an authority, state, or institution from securing his or her own interests.... The purpose of law in all its forms must be to secure and promote "the greatest happiness of the greatest number."
Do Bentham and today's university students following his ideas not see that this view of law necessitates a direct contradiction of individualism, namely, sacrifice (possibly limited and occasional) of a few for the benefit of the many? Do they not see clearly where such a premise will inevitably lead over time?
Update: Happiness and Rights
What I find most intriguing about "greatest happiness for the greatest number" is that it upholds happiness as important in human life. That is radically different from altruism, i.e., self-sacrifice as a moral ideal, which exhorts man to abandon aspirations of achieving personal happiness and to live entirely for others (or for "humanity" in general, past, present and future) instead.
As for individual rights, it's not clear to me that college freshmen and sophomores who are just starting to learn about various theories such as utilitarianism understand that a fully consistent implementation of individual rights cannot be further "refined" or "adjusted" to benefit some at others' expense without violating someone's individual rights -- which, in principle, means that a society can dispense with anyone's individual rights if the society deems it expedient. That could, indeed, be a possibly persuasive connection to identify explicitly.
Meanwhile (coincidentally), I've also just started reading Free Market Revolution by Yaron Brook and Don Watkins, and I'm finding a wealth of informative, readily accessible insights that could prove highly useful and interesting for college students and others as well.
I think this is a great answer: "If you want to help others in 'need,' you will not be stopped."
However, the full meaning of this statement will not be apparent to most people. It could use some unpacking and elaboration to help people understand. They aren’t used to statements like this.
To begin with, it says "you" may help others. But it means: you and anyone else who wants to. Someone might be worried he'd have to do it alone and it'd be too big a burden. But he's welcome to recruit help from most people, as long as he can persuade them to help voluntarily. (Which in many cases will be easy – they already agree with him and require no persuasion. But in other cases may be difficult because there is a substantial philosophical disagreement.)
Another aspect of the statement is a rejection of forcing me (or anyone else) to help. I'll help voluntarily when I think it's best, and not otherwise. Anything different than that would mean sometimes being forced to help when I think it is not best – which means, to be forced to betray my own interests and values as I see them.
When there are disagreements (e.g. about how altruist to be), people should convince me with reason, or leave me alone.
The full meaning of this perspective includes a sort of challenge: if you want me to help with some charity project (or really any project, it's the same with non-charity projects), persuade me to do so, but do not force me. (BTW persuading someone to help with a project isn't limited to words, you can also e.g. offer to pay them. Anything voluntary and rights-respecting is fair game.)
There's a quote I like about this, from an old classical liberal philosopher, William Godwin. From An Enquiry Concerning Political Justice:
Let us consider the effect that coercion produces upon the mind of him against whom it is employed. It cannot begin with convincing; it is no argument. It begins with producing the sensation of pain, and the sentiment of distaste. It begins with violently alienating the mind from the truth with which we wish it to be impressed. It includes in it a tacit confession of imbecility. If he who employs coercion against me could mould me to his purposes by argument, no doubt he would. He pretends to punish me because his argument is strong; but he really punishes me because his argument is weak.
All decent people do use persuasion when they can succeed with it. It's cheaper, easier and nicer than using force. They prefer it. It's only when they can't get their way by persuasion that they become interested in using force. But one's inability to be persuasive on a topic is an extremely bad justification for force!
For particularly confused people, a lot more elaboration than this may be necessary about the differences between voluntary action and force, individual freedom and controlling others, and so on. That can be found in Rand's books, among other places. I suspect the questioner could do more unpacking himself. My goal here is to indicate an approach to the issue that I think he'll understand.
As a second approach, when speaking to utilitarians, I would suggest pointing out the vague nature of utilitarianism. What is the greatest happiness for the greatest number? It sounds meaningful, but it's actually undefined and deeply ambiguous.
There is no procedure for evaluating an individual's happiness as a single number. And there is no procedure for combining together multiple people's happiness into a sum. And there's also the problem of how to approach total happiness over time, e.g. does the infinite potential future infinitely outweigh the importance of current happiness?
For some elaboration of this, I like The Order of Things. The article discusses the difficulties of combining multiple factors (e.g. happiness with one's job, happiness with one's social life, happiness with one's philosophy, unhappiness) into one number which can be used in rankings.
Another difficulty is if you ask people to rank how happy they are 1-10, and one guy says 5 and one says 8, you don't know who is actually happier. There's no way to get them talking about the same scale because there are no well-defined measurable units of happiness to guide them in what number to answer with.
Another issue is that collectivist-altruist methods of organizing society lead to misery and destruction. But rather than elaborate on that directly, I want to talk about the style of how to answer, which I learned about from Objectivism.
I think it's very important to be clear about the stakes. Don't soft-sell these things. Don't concede anything. Don't say freedom is only a little better. Don't say utilitarianism is inefficient (it is, but calling it merely inefficient would lift it far above it's true status). Be harsh by conventional standards. There is a truth of the matter here, it matters, you know about it, and collectivism and utilitarianism and altruism and so on lead to nothing less than abject misery and large-scale destruction. Be very clear that the difference between what you have to offer, and their current position, is life or death, so they really ought to learn better. It's crucially important that they study this better, including opposing positions (e.g. Objectivism), and find out what actually is and isn't compatible with human welfare.
Don't agree to disagree. Don't grant them sanction as a reasonable person with a difference of opinion on this matter. Say that in your mind, their position on this matter is unreasonable, destructive and illegitimate. Say that you can respect them as a student who is learning and may make mistakes, but utilitarianism is not something you can respect, it's outside the bounds of civil ideas. It's OK to consider utilitarianism philosophically and learn about it, but if he ever moves on to trying to practice it then he is your enemy, working against your values. Utilitarianism is that bad.
Don't leave the big bold claims to global warming activists and other leftists. Objectivism has strong and important ideas. They are the truth, so say them proudly and clearly.
For Objectivist sources on this perspective, a great one is, "How Does One Lead a Rational Life in an Irrational Society?" in VoS:
I will confine my answer to a single, fundamental aspect of this question. I will name only one principle, the opposite of the idea which is so prevalent today and which is responsible for the spread of evil in the world. That principle is: One must never fail to pronounce moral judgment. Nothing can corrupt and disintegrate a culture or a man’s character as thoroughly as does the precept of moral agnosticism, the idea that one must never pass moral judgment on others, that one must be morally tolerant of anything, that the good consists of never distinguishing good from evil.
Distinguishing good and evil, and pronouncing moral judgment, and refusing to be morally tolerant of evil ideas, are the sorts of things I'm talking about.
Also, tell him clearly that a morality without compromises and moral grayness is possible. And that you know it, and he can too, and it's called Objectivism.
The policy of always pronouncing moral judgment does not mean that one must regard oneself as a missionary charged with the responsibility of “saving everyone’s soul”—nor that one must give unsolicited moral appraisals to all those one meets. It means: (a) that one must know clearly, in full, verbally identified form, one’s own moral evaluation of every person, issue and event with which one deals, and act accordingly; (b) that one must make one’s moral evaluation known to others, when it is rationally appropriate to do so.
You don't have to go out of your way to speak to everyone. But if you do have a discussion with a utilitarian who is reasonable enough for it to actually be a discussion, then it's rationally appropriate (and therefore required by Objectivism) to tell him your moral evaluations of the issues you discuss. And your moral evaluations better be clear and, for an issue like this, stark, black and white, harsh, etc.
I think by following Objectivism like this, one will be much more persuasive. Even most people who like Objectivism seem to be scared to take this kind of approach seriously, but I think Rand had it right and it's really important.
An irrational society is a society of moral cowards—of men paralyzed by the loss of moral standards, principles and goals. But since men have to act, so long as they live, such a society is ready to be taken over by anyone willing to set its direction. The initiative can come from only two types of men: either from the man who is willing to assume the responsibility of asserting rational values—or from the thug who is not troubled by questions of responsibility.